William Ellery Channing (April 7, 1780 – October 2, 1842) was the foremost Unitarian preacher in the United States in the early nineteenth century and along with Andrews Norton, (1786-1853), one of Unitarianism's leading theologians. He was known for his articulate and impassioned sermons and public speeches, and as a prominent thinker in the liberal theology of the day. Channing's religion and thought were among the chief influences on the New England Transcendentalists, though he never countenanced their views, which he saw as extreme. The beliefs he espoused, especially within his "Baltimore Sermon" of May 5, 1819, at the ordination of a future famous theologian and educator in his own right, Jared Sparks, (1789-1866), as the first minister (1819-1823) of the newly organized (1817) "First Independent Church of Baltimore" (later the "First Unitarian Church of Baltimore (Unitarian and Universalist)"). Here he espoused his principles and tenets of the developing philosophy and theology of "Unitarianism" resulted in the organization later in 1825 of the first Unitarian denomination in America (American Unitarian Association) and the later developments and mergers between Unitarians and Universalists resulting finally in the Unitarian Universalist Association of America in 1961.
Life and work
Channing was born in Newport, Rhode Island, a grandson of William Ellery, (1727-1827) a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence, Deputy Governor of Rhode Island, Chief Justice and influential citizen. He became a New England liberal, rejecting the Calvinist doctrines of total depravity and divine election.
College was never in a worse state than when I entered it. Society was passing through a most critical stage. The French Revolution had diseased the imagination and unsettled the understanding of men everywhere. The old foundations of social order, loyalty, tradition, habit, reverence for antiquity, were everywhere shaken, if not subverted. The authority of the past was gone.
In opposition to traditional American Calvinist orthodoxy, Channing preferred a gentle, loving relationship with God. He opposed Calvinism for
… proclaiming a God who is to be dreaded. We are told to love and imitate God, but also that God does things we would consider most cruel in any human parent, "were he to bring his children into life totally depraved and then to pursue them with endless punishment" (Channing 1957: 56).
However, the struggle continued through two years during which Channing lived in Richmond, Virginia working as a tutor. He came to his definitive faith only through much spiritual turmoil and difficulty. Channing was called as pastor of the Federal Street Church in Boston in 1803, where he remained for the rest of his life. He lived through the increasing tension between religious liberals and conservatives and took a moderate position, rejecting the extremes of both groups.
In 1815, Channing engaged in a noted controversy on the principles of "Unitarianism" with Samuel Worcester, (1770-1821). A review, attributed to Jeremiah Evarts, had been published in the "The Panoplist" in June 1815 of a pamphlet on American Unitarianism ("American Unitarianism; or a Brief History of the Progress and Present State of the Unitarian Churches of America"). Channing objected to the way Unitarians in the United States were portrayed in the review, Worcester replied to this objection, and an exchange of pamphlets followed.
Notwithstanding his moderate position, Channing later became the primary spokesman and interpreter of "Unitarianism", after sixteen years at Boston's Federal Street Church when he was invited to come south again to Maryland and preached the ordination sermon of a future noted educator and theologian in his own right, Jared Sparks, (1789-1866), the first minister (1819-1823) called to the newly organized congregation in Baltimore known as the First Independent Church of Baltimore (located at West Franklin and North Charles Streets, in a landmark two-year old structure designed by noted French émigré architect J. Maximilian M. Godefroy - later known as the "First Unitarian Church of Baltimore (Unitarian and Universalist)" [after a merger with Second Universalist Church in 1935], which was forever after known as "The Baltimore Sermon" on Sunday, May 5, 1819, (the Anniversary of which is celebrated and observed annually by the Maryland churches of the Unitarian Universalist Association and its Joseph Priestley District as "Union Sunday", with occasional ecumenical guests from other Christian bodies). It was entitled "Unitarian Christianity". In that "Sermon" or "Address", he explicated the distinctive tenets of the developing "Unitarian" movement, only one of which was the rejection of the Trinity. Other important tenets were the belief in human goodness and the subjection of theological ideas to the light of reason.
In 1828, he gave another famous ordination sermon, entitled "Likeness to God". The idea of the human potential to be like God, which Channing advocated as grounded firmly in scripture, was seen as heretical by the Calvinist religious establishment of his day. It is in this address which Channing first advocates the possibility for revelation through reason rather than solely from Scripture. American Philosophy: An Encyclopedia classes him as one of several figures who "took a more pantheist or pandeist approach by rejecting views of God as separate from the world."
"I have always inclined to the doctrine of the preexistence of Christ, though am not insensible to the weight of your objections" (Boston, March 31, 1832)
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In later years Channing addressed the topic of slavery, although he was never an ardent abolitionist. Channing wrote a book in 1835, entitled, "SLAVERY" James Munroe and Company, publisher. Channing, however, has been described as a "romantic racist" in "Black Abolitionism: A Quest for Human Dignity" by Beverly Eileen Mitchell (133–38). He held a common American belief about the inferiority of African people and slaves and held a belief that once freed, Africans would need overseers. The overseers (largely former slave masters) were necessary because the slaves would lapse into laziness. Furthermore, he did not join the abolitionist movement because he did not agree with their way of conducting themselves, and he felt that voluntary associations limited a person's autonomy. Therefore, he often chose to remain separate from organizations and reform movements. This middle position characterized his attitude about most questions, although his eloquence and strong influence on the religious world incurred the enmity of many extremists. Channing had an enormous influence over the religious (and social) life of New England, and America, in the nineteenth century.
Towards the end of his life Channing embraced immediate abolitionism. His evolving view of abolitionism was fostered by the success of British abolition in the British West Indies in 1834 and the lack of the expected social and economic upheaval in the post-emancipated Caribbean.
Channing wrote extensively about the emerging new national literature of the United States. He wrote that national literature is "the expression of a nation's mind in writing" and "the concentration of intellect for the purpose of spreading itself abroad and multiplying its energy."
Statues of Channing are located on the edge of the Boston Public Garden, across the street from the Arlington Street Church that he served, (and the Federal Street Church), and facing Channing Memorial Church, built in Newport, Rhode Island in 1880 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth. The same year, a younger Unitarian minister in Newport, Charles Timothy Brooks, published a biography, "William Ellery Channing, A Centennial Memory". In 1885, the Channing School For Girls opened in London, primarily for the daughters of British Unitarian ministers. A portrait of him also hangs in the foyer of the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore (Unitarian and Universalist) at North Charles and West Franklin Streets in Baltimore, Maryland, along with the aforementioned "Union Sunday" annual commemoration services in May.
Channing had a profound impact on the Transcendentalism movement, though he was never officially subscribed to its views. However, two of Channing's nephews, Ellery Channing (1818–1901) and William Henry Channing